Can Ron DeSantis Avoid Meeting the Press?
Assigned to cover the re-election campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Miles Cohen, a young ABC News reporter, found himself stymied. The governor would not grant him an interview. Aides barred him from some campaign events and interrupted his conversations with supporters.
When Mr. Cohen was finally able to ask a question about the governor’s handling of Hurricane Ian, Mr. DeSantis shouted him down — “Stop, stop, stop” — and scolded the media for “trying to cast aspersions.” The DeSantis campaign then taunted Mr. Cohen on Twitter, prompting a torrent of online vitriol.
So on election night, Mr. Cohen decamped to a friendlier environment for the news media: Mar-a-Lago, where former President Donald J. Trump greeted reporters by name. “He came up to us, asked how the sandwiches were and took 20 questions,” Mr. Cohen recalled.
Mr. Trump, who heckled the “fake news” in his speech that evening, elevated media-bashing into a high art for Republicans. But ahead of the next presidential race, potential candidates like Mr. DeSantis are taking a more radical approach: not just attacking nonpartisan news outlets, but ignoring them altogether.
Although he courted right-wing podcasters and conservative Fox News hosts, Mr. DeSantis did not grant an extensive interview to a national nonpartisan news organization during his 2022 re-election bid — and he coasted to victory, with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire now promoting him as a 2024 contender.
His success is an ominous sign for the usual rules of engagement between politicians and the press as another nationwide election looms. Presidential candidates typically endure media scrutiny in exchange for the megaphone and influence of mainstream outlets. But in an intensely partisan, choose-your-own-news era, the traditional calculus may have shifted.
“The old way of looking at it is: ‘I have to do every media hit that I possibly can, from as broad a political spectrum as I can, to reach as many people as possible,’” said Nick Iarossi, a longtime DeSantis supporter and a lobbyist in Tallahassee. “The new way of looking at it is: ‘I really don’t need to do that anymore. I can control how I want to message to voters through the mediums I choose.’”
In 2022, Mr. DeSantis was not alone. Doug Mastriano, the Republican who ran for governor in Pennsylvania, engaged almost entirely with conservative media outlets. (Unlike Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Mastriano lost badly.) In Maryland and Wisconsin, reporters covering the Republican candidates for governor were often given no notice for some events, resorting to Eventbrite pages and social media to find a candidate’s whereabouts. On a national level, the Republican Party announced last year that it was boycotting the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that has organized general election debates since 1988.
“We fully expect candidates will be rewriting the traditional rules of access and how they interact with journalists,” said Rick Klein, who is preparing to cover the 2024 race as political director at ABC News.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and His Administration
- Reshaping Florida: Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has turned the swing state into a right-wing laboratory by leaning into cultural battles.
- 2024 Speculation: Mr. DeSantis opened his second term as Florida’s governor with a speech that subtly signaled his long-rumored ambitions for the White House.
- Latino Evangelicals: The governor has courted Hispanic evangelical Christians assiduously as his national profile has risen. They could be a decisive constituency in a possible showdown with former President Donald J. Trump in 2024.
- A Democrat’s View: Jared Moskowitz worked closely with Mr. DeSantis as his emergency management czar. Now, he’s joining Congress positioning himself as a centrist.
Could a presidential candidate realistically avoid the mainstream media entirely? “I don’t think it’s been done before,” Mr. Klein said. “But I think the last couple of years in politics has taught us there’s lots of rules that get broken.”
Mr. DeSantis’s strategy would face its biggest test if he pursued a presidential bid, a decision he has so far demurred on.
In Florida, Mr. DeSantis occasionally spoke with local TV affiliates and entertained shouted-out questions from the state’s press corps. But a national contest would require him to introduce himself to a broader audience, and while a primary race would focus on Republican voters, it is often independents and centrists who decide the fine margins of the Electoral College. Although partisan podcasts and niche news sites are increasingly popular, few outlets can match the reach of traditional broadcast and cable networks.
“You can’t just talk to the friendly press and run TV ads and expect to win a nomination,” said Alex Conant, a partner at the consulting firm Firehouse Strategies who served as communications director to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
“If you’re going to get elected president, you have to talk to people who have never watched Fox News,” said Mr. Conant, who believes the Republican Party’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms was partly due to an overreliance on speaking only to its base.
Representatives of Mr. DeSantis did not return a request for comment.
Mr. Trump pioneered some of these aggressive tactics, barring journalists from a number of publications, including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post, from attending some rallies in his 2016 campaign, and pulling out of a planned general-election debate in October 2020. His administration revoked a CNN reporter’s press pass and barred disfavored journalists from some public events; his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, declared the media as “the opposition party.”
Still, Mr. Trump remained an enthusiastic participant in the “boys on the bus” tradition of campaign reporting that dates back decades, where political journalists crisscross the country in proximity to the candidates they cover.
These so-called embed reporters often became the experts on America’s future leaders, granting readers and viewers a front-row seat. Arguably, candidates benefited, too: Although they had to cope with a dedicated press corps, the scrutiny offered preparation for the slings and arrows of holding national office, not to mention free advertising to constituents.
Mr. DeSantis, a Yale and Harvard graduate who often assails what he calls the “Acela media,” has spent years working to upend those assumptions.
Florida reporters have complained about a lack of access to Mr. DeSantis since he was elected governor in 2018, a victory fueled in part by dozens of appearances on Fox News. His anti-media hostility intensified during the pandemic, when he faced criticism for reopening Florida early; in March 2020, a staff writer for The Miami Herald was barred from a news conference about the virus.
In 2021, he held a lengthy news conference in April denying a claim by “60 Minutes” that he improperly rewarded a campaign donor; the “60 Minutes” segment received some pushback from press critics. The next month, the governor blocked every outlet except Fox News from attending a signing ceremony for a state law, prompting one local TV reporter to complain that Floridians “had their eyes and ears in that room cut off.”
By the summer, many news outlets were prohibited from attending a gathering of Florida Republicans, while conservative writers and podcasters were granted access. “We in the state of Florida are not going to allow legacy media outlets to be involved in our primaries,” Mr. DeSantis told a cheering crowd. His communications director, Lindsey Curnutte, later mocked reporters in a Twitter post aimed at “fake news journalists,” asking, “How’s the view from outside security?”
Mr. DeSantis has integrated this messaging into his campaign materials. In one recent ad, he donned aviator sunglasses and a flight uniform to pose as the “Top Gov,” intent on “dogfighting” the “corporate media.”
A top DeSantis communications aide, Christina Pushaw, has articulated the governor’s view of the news media in harsh terms.“They hate you, they hate us, they hate everything that we stand for, and I believe they hate this country,” she said in a speech in September, referring to the media.
In 2021, Ms. Pushaw’s Twitter account was suspended after she criticized a report by The Associated Press and urged her followers to “drag them.” Ms. Pushaw, then serving as the governor’s press secretary, wrote that she would put the A.P. reporter “on blast” if he did not modify the story; the reporter later received online threats.
The A.P. complained about “a direct effort to activate an online mob to attack a journalist for doing his job.” Ms. Pushaw responded that “drag them” was a slang term and did not amount to inciting a violent threat.
The incident prompted an outcry. “As someone who believes in the role of press in an open society, I found it unbelievable, not only what she was allowed to do, but encouraged to do,” said Barbara Petersen, a longtime First Amendment advocate who runs the Florida Center for Government Accountability. “I find it very disturbing, frankly, that this man, who is our governor, won’t talk to the people whose job it is to keep us informed.”
In December, the news outlet Semafor reported on Mr. DeSantis’s preference for local right-wing news outlets. The governor’s team pushed back, comparing reporters to “Democrat activists,” and high-profile conservatives offered encouragement.
“In an environment where corporate media are just straight up anti-G.O.P. propagandists — and extremely proud of it — why is Ron DeSantis the only person taking it seriously?” wrote Mollie Hemingway, editor of The Federalist.
Whether Mr. DeSantis can keep up his approach to media remains unclear. Mr. Trump may have mastered Twitter, but it was his ubiquity on big outlets like CNN and MSNBC that solidified his electoral appeal.
Even an anti-media message, it turns out, may need the media’s help.
“Going back to 2016, Trump was at his most effective when he was anti-media but would nevertheless talk to anybody,” said Mr. Conant, the former Rubio aide. “He was getting his message out on CNN and MSNBC every day, even though part of his message was that the media is terrible.”
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.